Beginner's Research Guide

Where to Look and What to Avoid

by Eric Slyter

Author's note: This article is primarily geared towards the craft of armouring, but the relevant points can be applied to any historical research. This article turned out to be far longer than I originally expected it to. Indulge me, though. If you can get through this article, you'll have no trouble doing historical research :-)

Basic research is a key point that many beginners want to just skip over in their rush to build a suit of armour. Maybe the armoured hero in a movie was your inspiration... maybe you were thrilled by what you experienced in a role-playing or video game... maybe you visited a renaissance faire and were impressed by armour-wearing reenactors or performers... or maybe, like many of us, you have had a lifelong fascination with knights and armour and the other things are just a part of it. These may have sparked your imagination, but they are not a complete picture without the background information. Without doing some studying, you will find your growth as a budding armourer stunted and you'll have a harder time getting specific answers to what will probably be poorly conceived questions.

What do I mean by "poorly conceived questions?" Here is an example...

How do I build a suit of platemail like a Crusader had?
This is a poorly conceived question, because:
  • The terminology "platemail" immediately brands you as a newcomer who has, at best, role-playing game experience. Reputable sources do not use terminology of this kind. (see also: Glossary of Armour Terminology and Demystifying Chainmail and Ringmail)
  • The Crusading Era spanned about 300 years, and armour changed considerably during that time. The question needs to address a specific time span between approximately 1050-1350, or a specific Crusade (remember also that there were Crusades other than just those to the Holy Land.)
  • No regard is given to the region in question. Armour often differed between England, Italy, and Germany, for example.
  • Are you interested in the armour of a knight or a footsoldier? They are often different.
  • Do you know how to make armour? Advice will be useless otherwise.

Since it is obvious that you don't know what you are asking for, people will have a hard time coming up with advice for you. Additionally, one can probably safely assume from this question that you don't have even the first clue as to how to build a suit of armour. That is okay, everyone has to start somewhere. Realize, though, that advice on how to do it will be useless until you clarify a) what it is that you want, and b) indicate that you are experienced enough to be able to take that advice and run with it. (see also: An Introduction to the Skill of Making Armour) Unfortunately, questions like this are common. The answer is research.

Research is the foundation upon which your armouring education must begin. Getting a good grounding in armour history and simultaneously developing your basic armouring skills will elevate your appreciation of the craft and put you way ahead of the game. It will enable you to ask the right questions to get the kinds of answers you want, earning the respect of your peers.

Where Not To Look

I'm going to burst a lot of bubbles here. Many people first develop their interest in this subject as a result of television, movies, role-playing games, renaissance faires, etc. Sadly, a large percentage of people think that this exposure is a history lesson. Nothing could be further from the truth. These are all forms of entertainment, not education.

  • Movies

    I can't tell you how many times I've seen this question in our discussion forum:

      Is the armour in Braveheart/Timeline/13th Warrior/Gladiator/etc. accurate?

    The answer is, with very very few exceptions, no. Filmmakers are famous for touting their creations as "accurate." If that was the case, though, they'd be called "documentaries," not "movies." They exist only to make money, not educate you about arms and armour, history or anything else for that matter. They are made based on the director's vision (and interpretation), and what the director thinks will pack people into the theaters. Here is an example that I enjoy giving when this subject comes up...

    On the Gladiator DVD, if you watch the director's commentary you'll hear a fuss in the beginning about hiring all these experts to insure that they got it "right." A few minutes later, the director justifies a serious variation from history by saying to his expert, "How do you know? You weren't there!" Movie makers have no problem with changing history to suit their needs. They don't really care about presenting something that is accurate. Their chief concern is making it look good and selling tickets. Never forget that.

    This does not even address the "accuracy" of movies like Lord of the Rings, Willow, etc. because they are fantasy movies and are inherently not portraying historical accuracy.

  • Television

    One would think that The History Channel, The Discovery Channel and others of that kind would be the right place to go for accurate information, but that really isn't the whole truth. They take a lot of shortcuts, and sometimes bend accuracy to suit their budget or the particular point they are trying to get across. Sometimes their "experts" are the ones that are well-known, but not always the ones that are the most knowledgeable. The History Channel's "Conquest" show, as one example, outraged the medieval community with its extreme misrepresentations of medieval subject matter. I believe the show has since been axed (pardon the pun), and not a moment too soon. Programs of this type do far more harm than good to the advancement of credible, accurate information to the mass public and have ruined the reputations of these networks among serious enthusiasts.

    Movies and TV are probably the two biggest problem areas for the medieval community, because they present such a convincing and vivid image to the viewer and often have little regard for the accuracy of the material being presented. Here is a rule of thumb: Everything you see in movies and a lot of what you see in TV documentaries needs to be taken with a healthy grain of skepticism.

  • Role Playing Games and Books

    While certainly serving the purpose of sparking interest in the middle ages, role playing games and fantasy books are a serious source of misinformation to budding medievalists. For the most part they are rule-based fictitious realms, and even in the case of the ones loosely based on real time periods the makers are more interested in appearances and entertainment value than they are in presenting something that is consistent with what is known to history. Combat is grossly misrepresented for the sake of making the situations playable. Role playing games have long perpetuated serious errors in terminology (chainmail, platemail, scalemail, etc.), as those terms were adapted for the original Dungeons & Dragons games in the 1960's, borrowed from armour texts that were quite outdated even by that time's standards. Little of value can be had from fantasy novels as well... while entertaining, they possess no value to the person who is interested in the arms and armour of history and, like games, will only serve to skew the perceptions of what is real and possible with actual armour and weapons in a real conflict.

  • Renaissance and Medieval Faires

    As a former ren faire performer, I can guarantee you that the vast majority of the people both attending and working at such events are present only for their own entertainment and very often don't know what they are talking about. The problem is that they either don't realize it, or do realize it and are too proud to admit it, instead choosing to make something up for the unassuming patron. There are even some unscrupulous vendors who will lie through their teeth, saying whatever the customer wants to hear in order to make the sale. This is something that I've seen many times, from the top to the bottom.

    Charismatic jousting knights might be exciting and inspiring, but some of them can't even tell you anything about the armour they are wearing except how much they paid for it. Many of them are just there to do a job, get paid, and enjoy the attention. It does not make them historians. This is not meant to be a brush to broadly paint all groups, as some members of such groups certainly know their stuff. Many, however, do not, so just be careful about what you believe.

    Many reenactors and living historians attend and perform demonstrations at ren faires, and these too can be hit-and-miss when it comes to accurate information. Most reenactors are members of various medieval societies that have varying degrees of interest in historical accuracy. Some just want to participate and have no historical knowledge to impart, but do so anyway because they enjoy the attention and respect they receive by being in a position of authority. Living historians tend to be more stringent in their group requirements and this is often reflected in the quality of their equipment and the level of detail they can offer in their knowledge.

  • The Internet

    Though this may sound hypocritical, be discriminating with what you find published on the internet. Anybody can put up a website, but it doesn't mean they've ever read a book in their life. I've had some embattled emails with a teen who was having a hard time understanding my repeated attempts to impress the importance of actually reading books (my last email refuted the "facts" he cited from websites he'd browsed with only about 5 minutes of my time and my copy of Arms & Armor of the Medieval Knight) When you come across something you are not sure of, see if they noted where they got their information. If not, then ask. Is it fact or just opinion dressed up as fact? Is it a "fact" that they heard from a friend, who heard from another friend, etc.? Remember doing book reports in high school? Look for the same kind of treatment on web pages. See if they cite their sources. If not, they might be just making it up based on what they saw in a movie, on TV, in a role playing game or at a ren faire... all the usual places where bad information tends to surface.

Movies, TV, role playing games and fantasy novels, ren faires and even the internet can be dodgy places to get your information. Recently we have even had a couple people on our forums claim that the "Official Weapons and Warfare" book from the "Lord of the Rings" trilogy is a good place to start learning about arms and armour. Stating it plainly, a picture book based on a movie based on a fantasy novel is not a source of historical arms and armour information. Sources like this will do far more harm than good to your education, and in fact it can take years to de-program the misconceptions that sources like this can engrain.

It can be difficult to know who to believe, which is why educating yourself is so important. So how does one go about that? Read on.

Most people will agree that if you are really interested in this stuff you should read lots of books... recent ones, reputable ones, and numerous ones. Books such as those written by people who have spent a lifetime immersing themselves in the subject and have spent years working on their book, rather than merely 2 hours putting up a website that's full of information they obtained from a role-playing game. That's really the big difference between books and the other sources of information listed above: someone has invested a lot of time and money in the creation and publication of information that is going to be around for a long time. That usually means that there has been time spent on making sure that the information involved is correct and will stand the test of time. There are some books that are nearly 100 years old and still in print because they have information that is still valid today. Some books are written for the academic, scholarly crowd, and some are written by the academic crowd for the layperson who has an interest in the subject. It is valuable to have books of both kinds, as the scholarly books will have very detailed information on specific topics and the general books will be broader, which is helpful to the person just getting into the field. For example, the aforementioned Arms & Armor of the Medieval Knight is an excellent introduction to the subject. If you subsequently discover that you like armour of the 14th Century, you would then do well to obtain a copy of Armour from the Battle of Wisby.

While some folks know right away that they are interested in Vikings or Romans or what have you, I myself have always been fascinated most by knights and armour. That is very broad and very general, covering a time span of approximately 500 years. So, books like Arms & Armor of the Medieval Knight were among the first I read. From there, I was able to decide what particular time periods were really of interest to me and narrow my focus to gain a more detailed knowledge of those time periods.

I favor this course as a means of getting into arms and armour, because nothing exists in a bubble. The Vikings didn't exist in their own little world oblivious and uninfluenced by the things around them, so specializing on one thing before you know the bigger picture has disadvantages, in my own opinion. In the course of my general pursuit of the subject and eventual specialization, I learned a lot about arms and armour of the Western European Middle Ages, so that is primarily what I know about with some specific strong points (for example, my current main interest is arms and armour of the 14th C.; in contrast I'm familiar with but know considerably less about the 15th C.). Other studies, such as politics and culture, figure into that as well because they influenced the development of arms and armour, so you eventually start to get a more well-rounded view of what you are interested in. And remember, just because you pick one area to research doesn't mean that you'll have to only research that one thing forever.

Now, to the books! Unfortunately, some of the good ones are out of print (the community desperately needs an updated general armour text), but most are available if you have the spare cash to invest, or can be had for free from your public library. Thats where I got my start (though now these books all have a comfortable home on my shelves).

  • Arms and Armor of the Medieval Knight
    This one has already been mentioned a couple times in this article. This is the A-1 book to either beg, borrow, or steal. Lots of pictures and supporting historical info. In need of updating, but still the book that many people turn to for their information, and rightly so. Out of print, can be expensive and difficult to obtain. Some have got it off of eBay for as little as $20.

  • This ranks well behind Arms and Armor of the Medieval Knight, with less detail and more general info. Not really a scholarly work, but a good overview. Covers Ancient Greece to WWII. Lots of pictures. In print.

  • European Armour c. 1066 to 1700
    The granddaddy of Arms and Armor of the Medieval Knight. Somewhat outdated, but still considered a reputable source for info. I rank it 3rd only because it has so few pictures. Out of print, can usually be found in the $60 range.

  • Arms and Armor
    Nice little book, dated but a good primer for the subject. Should definitely be supplemented with additional reading. Lots of pictures. Out of print, easy to obtain at cheap prices.

  • Reference style book stuffed full of thousands of line drawings and corresponding data for each item. Supporting historical data, covers huge regional and time scope. In print.

    More books and their descriptions can be found on our Bookshelf but the above titles are the ones that come up often in discussion and are considered "must haves."

    In addition to books, there are several academic armour-related journals that are published regularly that contain valuable, sometimes hard-to-come-by information. Since larger books are written so infrequently and are sometimes generalized, these journals offer the opportunity to address points of interest that may not merit or need full publication as a book, and are easily updated since they are published often. Some titles, both current and back issues, may be difficult to locate.

  • The Arms & Armour Society Journal
  • The Journal of the Royal Armouries
  • Gladius

    Lastly, a humble plug for the very website you are reading. Living History Library is at your disposal, so use it well!

    It is easy to think that one or two books is enough to make one well-versed in the subject... but the fact is that the topic of European arms and armour is immense, a subject that one could spend an entire lifetime studying just a single part of. Sometimes it seems that the more you learn, the more you discover how little you know. Read lots, read often, read the right things and ask questions, and before long you'll be the person answering the questions.